Springtime brings budding flowers, chirping birds, and the staff of 4WOR trying to cobble together old iron while spending as little money as possible. This year the crew met up at Randy Ellis Design in Phoenix with the intention of taking backroads to the mining town of Crown King and then on north to Williams, Arizona. Along the way, rockcrawling and desert racing veteran Randy Ellis would concoct challenges for us and Daystar head honcho Mark Turner would embarrass our jalopies in his Hemi-powered JK. Ellis’ first rule of Cheap Truck Challenge: Wear a goofy wig. Second rule: Don’t ask why we wear goofy wigs!
Getting There Is Half the Fun
It took us nearly a full day of wrenching in front of the Randy Ellis Design shop before we even hit the dirt. While Péwé’s XJ was in fine mechanical condition, Williams had to replace a dangerously worn drag link end, and it took three trips to the parts store to get it right. We doubt he would have had the same issue with a more common Jeep or Chevy. Wagner’s Ford was the worst of all—the thing would barely run when it stumbled up in front of Randy Ellis Design.
In order to get to the trailhead we had to cover some pavement, just like you do. With the stock suspension and all-terrain tires, Williams’ Land Cruiser worked well and channeled the spirit of its Prius brethren to return the best fuel economy … once he replaced the hashed drag link end. Wagner’s Ford was all over the place, with poor steering geometry and a carb that needed to be tuned. Péwé was the only one to drive his truck all the way from home to the Cheap Truck Challenge, and (spoiler alert) he drove it home afterwards too. It worked as well on the road as it did on the trail but used more fuel than the wimpy-tired Toyota.
New trucks, new location, same old antics
Challenge 1: Rockcrawling, Rockbouncing
After everyone camped out on the trail, Day 2 brought the first challenge. Ellis placed cones to create a small rockcrawling course in a wash that required a sharp 180-degree turn at the midpoint. Péwé went first and was graceful, if not particularly quick. Wagner was next and gave it hell, but the turning radius on his Ford didn’t do him any favors. Williams went last, and despite his limited ground clearance he dropped the hammer and laid down the fastest time, but he cut a tire in the process. Williams had won the “rockbouncing” battle, but would he win the war?
Challenge 2: Hillclimb
Continuing on to Crown King, Ellis picked a loose hillclimb for the next challenge. Mark Turner blasted up the climb with his JK, pulling a Mopar trailer with ease to show us the route.
Péwé was smooth and never spun a tire, but he seemed to forget where the throttle pedal was. Williams went next, but without a spare he was more conservative (aka boring to watch) than previously. He was picking perfect lines and moving fast with his open-diffed landwagon and got to the shelf at the top of the climb and unfortunately had to winch after getting high-centered, hurting his time. Wagner was last, and with a poorly running V-8 he had to stay in the throttle, bouncing his way to the top. It was entertaining, but despite all the revving and spinning tires he was slower than the Cherokee.
Péwé had neglected to wear his mandated rock band hair during the challenge (a rule that Ellis had issued for no apparent reason other than to make us look cool) so he had to forfeit, giving Wagner his first win.
Challenge 3: Obstacle Course
The third day brought the last challenge of the event and would push the vehicles to their limits. Somehow Ellis managed to find a mud pit in the middle of the Arizona desert, and it was placed on a loop that also had rough terrain, tight turns, and even a jump to test the suspension and axles of the challengers.
Straws were drawn, and Williams went first. He laid down a fast time in his Land Cruiser. In normal “high school kid driving his mom’s Luxo wagon” fashion, Williams hucked the Cruiser off the jump with total disregard for mechanical wellbeing. The mud pit, however, was almost too much for his all-terrain tires and cost him time, but by staying in the gas and sawing the steering he was able to get through. His real undoing occurred when he did not stay within the cones and took a longer corner than planned, which put him at the back of the standings with a DNF despite a fast time.
Péwé went next and kept Williams’ pace through much of the course, improving it through the mud where his Tread Wright Guard Dogs and Spartan Lockers carried him through without slowing down. However, in true old-guy fashion, Péwé refuses to air out his cheap truck on the jumps. He didn’t do it last year, and he repeated the low-altitude flight this year. Maybe experience has told him that jumping your truck isn’t always a good idea. The only casualty was his roof-mounted spare tire, which doubled as a moon visor after he bounced the tie-downs loose through the obstacle course.
Last but not least was Wagner in the big green mud machine. When the flag fell the Ford also fell, on its face. Again that stumbling V-8 was to blame (time for a carb upgrade, or EFI?). After he got moving he made up for lost time by opening up the 351 engine and letting the Pit Bulls eat the mud pit, as well as airing them out over the jump. The big Ford was right at home with Wagner’s mullet wig blowing in the wind, as he spun donuts in the mud pit after assuming he had the best run of the day. The slow start still put him behind Péwé though when the clock stopped.
No Lincoln Lockers?
One thing you will note is that none of these vehicles is running a “Lincoln Locker,” the common name for welding (with a Lincoln welder) the spider gears together inside an open differential to create a spool.
There is no arguing against the claim that this provides great additional trail prowess for minimal expense, but it is not without compromises. The added stress can cause the carrier or axleshafts to fail regardless of the welds, resulting in expensive repairs. And if you just spent all of your money on tires, a Lincoln Locker will wear them out in a hurry on the street. For these reasons welded diffs are best left to dedicated trail vehicles.
What Should I Get First?
One of the most common questions we are asked is “What is the first upgrade I should make to my 4x4?” While it wasn’t our intention to answer this question at the Cheap Truck Challenge, it is worth pointing out the vastly different approaches employed by Péwé, Williams, and Wagner. Editor Péwé spent the bulk of his budget on Spartan locking differentials for his Cherokee, while Williams opted for a Warn winch to get his FJ80 out of trouble. Wagner didn’t have lockers or a winch, instead spending his money on huge Pit Bull Rockers.
• Most Capable: Péwé’s locked Cherokee
• Guaranteed to Get You Home: Williams’ Warn-equipped Land Cruiser
• Turns the Most Heads: Wagner’s giant F-150
So Who Won?
Cheap Truck Challenge isn’t the kind of event where everyone gets a trophy. It is the kind of event where no one gets a trophy because we’re too cheap to buy one. Péwé’s locked Cherokee and years of driving experience made everything at CTC look easy, and he was the only one with the huevos to drive his vehicle all the way to Arizona and back home.
Williams was the most aggressive driver of the group, and with a boxed frame, beefy axles, and coil suspension his Land Cruiser was built to take it. Add mud-terrain tires and a locker and Williams could have likely embarrassed the competition, but those upgrades would have required a cheap truck budget upgrade.
This was Wagner’s first CTC, and his truck wasn’t the only thing green. He needed to sort out his poorly running Ford and get some seat time to get the most out of his F-150. That being said, his Ford was by far the coolest-looking 4x4 of the group. Big tires, classic lines, and a muscle-shirt-wearing mullet man behind the wheel. What more could you want? Farmers, lock up your daughters!